By Angela Glover Blackwell, PolicyLink
As part of our 75th anniversary, Irvine commissioned a series of posts from California experts and thought leaders who discuss the state’s most important trends and how we might collectively respond to them. This is one of those posts and we invite you to check back throughout the fall to read more of these entries and share your reactions below.
At a hearing of the California State Assembly Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color last spring, Joshua Ham, an African American 11th grader, described a typical day at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles. Ninety-nine percent of students are Latino and African American, and as they approach the building, “tall prison-looking gates with large hooks on the top” point toward them. Police cars cruise the streets. Security guards search backpacks. Classrooms are under-resourced and teachers are overwhelmed. “How can we truly be expected to achieve at a high academic level when we are experiencing conditions that are more like a prison and less like a school?” Josh asked the committee.
Young people like the Manual Arts students are the future of California, and California is the future of America. The state has led the country in the most significant demographic transformation in United States history — a majority of Californians are people of color, a shift that will occur nationwide within 30 years. Seventy-three percent of Californians under 18 are youth of color. They must succeed if our state is to succeed.
California can show America how to respond to, and invest in, these changes by blazing the trail toward a new economic model focused on equity, inclusion and prosperity for all. And we must begin by listening to the voices of tomorrow.
Once we did exactly that. We invested in our future, proudly. An unrivalled public school system, robust community colleges, a world-class public university system, model infrastructure and health programs — government investments gave generations of young Californians hope for the future and the knowledge, skills and confidence to achieve. The payoff was huge for the state, the nation and the world. These investments drove California’s fabled economic innovation, development and leadership in many fields, from computers, to aerospace to retailing to genetic engineering.
Today we talk far more about slashing programs than building them. While we like to point the finger at our budget woes, the current mood reflects a racial and generational collision. California’s largely white older population, including the political establishment, does not see itself reflected in the multi-hued faces of our children. Leaders and elders are drawing up the ladder behind them, just when they should extend a hand to pull the next generation up the rungs.
The latest Kids Count data by the Annie E. Casey Foundation tells the story. California ranks 45th in economic wellbeing: 22 percent of children live in poverty. We’re 43rd in education: three-quarters of fourth graders are not proficient in reading, and an equally appalling percentage of eighth graders are not proficient in math. We spend $1,000 less per student than we did five years ago.
California can have a future as dynamic as our past only if we tap the talents and nourish the promise of all young people. Every child must live in a healthy community, with clean air, safe streets, exercise opportunities, access to healthy foods and medical care — the essentials for wellbeing. Every child must enter kindergarten ready to learn. Every child must have access to high-quality education through 12th grade and beyond, and to training for the jobs of the future. This is not the wild dream of an idealist; it is an economic imperative. And we can achieve it by building public will to restore and sustain California’s greatness.
Philanthropists, advocates, business executives and community leaders have roles to play in the effort. We must spur frank, even painful, public conversation about the most taboo subject in American discourse — race — and we must engage in those discussions ourselves. We must develop messaging and media outreach that acknowledges both the enormous opportunities in the changing face of our state and nation, and the fears that it engenders.
We must challenge the older establishment to recognize that California’s destiny lies in communities of color. And we must challenge communities of color to step up and embrace that destiny, through robust economic, political and social participation. Perhaps most important, we must lift up local leaders, especially young people like Joshua Ham. His experience in school would (rightly) anger anyone who cares about fairness and quality in public education, but his direct, powerful, courageous demand for something better for communities of color should inspire and guide us all.
Angela Glover Blackwell is the founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity.